Tunisian anti-terrorism police summoned the country’s main opposition figure for questioning on Friday as a political crisis deepens in the wake of President Kais Saied’s move to dissolve parliament and impose one-man rule.
Rached Ghannouchi, head of the Ennahdha party and speaker of the dissolved parliament, met police after investigations were opened into other legislators who had defied Saied.
The president demanded that investigations be carried out after members of parliament held an online session on Wednesday and voted to revoke all the emergency measures he imposed – despite his decree last summer suspending the chamber.
Ghannouchi, 81, was accused of “having plotted against state security, which is a dangerous precedent”, said party spokesman Imed Khemiri, who was also summoned for the same reasons.
On Thursday, Ghannouchi said at least 30 parliamentarians had been questioned by anti-terrorism police.
The president accused those who took part in the session, along with Ghannouchi whose office announced the move, of conspiring against state security and he ordered the justice department to open legal proceedings against them.
Last month Saied took control of the judiciary, replacing a top council, whose job was to ensure judicial independence, with judges he selected himself.
Saied’s moves raise the prospect of a crackdown on the opposition as Tunisia’s main players grow more active in opposing his attempts to remake the political system in what they call a coup.
“It’s a turning point in targeting his opponents,” said deputy parliament speaker Samira Chaouachi.
Saied has defended his seizure of most powers last summer as necessary to save Tunisia from a corrupt, self-serving elite he paints as responsible for years of political paralysis and economic stagnation.
He has also pledged to uphold the rights and freedoms won in a 2011 revolution that brought democracy, and so far there have been few arrests or attempts to silence critics.
However, late on Thursday Saied said he would not call new parliamentary elections yet despite dissolving the chamber, and railed against those who took part in Wednesday’s session.
“There will be no dialogue with those who tried a coup and seek to divide Tunisians,” he said, suggesting those who opposed his moves may not be allowed to run in future elections.
Ennahdha and the Free Constitutional Party, which leads in opinion polls, have both said they will oppose Saied’s plans for a referendum on a new constitution he plans to introduce.
The parties are sworn ideological enemies and although there is no sign they could work together against Saied, their more active opposition to his moves suggests the crisis is intensifying.
“Saied, who usurped power, should immediately end the exceptional measures,” said the Free Constitutional Party’s leader Abir Moussi.
The strongest opposition to Saied since last summer has come from Ennahdha, which has been a main player in successive governments since the revolution.
Moussi and her Free Constitutional Party decry Ennahdha’s Islamist background and praise the regime of the late Zine El Abidine Ben Ali who was removed in 2011.
Many blame Ennahdha for the political deadlock and economic problems faced by the country over the past 10 years. But Saied’s moves have prompted accusations he is taking Tunisia back towards one-man rule.
Saied, a former law professor elected in 2019 amid public anger against the political class, has given himself powers to rule and legislate by decree, as well as seizing control over the judiciary.
The parliament building in Tunis has remained closed off and guarded by security forces for the past eight months.
“The way it’s looking is that this going to be a long drawn-out investigation,” said Al Jazeera’s Elizia Volkmann, reporting from Tunis.
“There was a lot of tension and nervousness on Tuesday and people were expecting arrests back then, the jack boot kicking out the door sort of scenario.
“But it looks like this is going to be a long process. Parliament was supposed to be convening another plenary session on Saturday but are now holding back to make sure that there are going to be enough MPs available to take part because of the minimum quorum.”
The United States, a major donor to Tunisia since the revolution, has voiced concern at Saied’s dissolution of parliament and threats to investigate legislators, and urged “a swift return to constitutional government”.
Saied is seeking international funding to avert a crisis in public finances amid growing economic pain for Tunisians after years of political bickering.
The UGTT labour union, the most powerful political body in the country with more than one million members, is contemplating a general strike to demand dialogue on both political and economic reforms. It previously urged Saied to dissolve parliament but also to hold rapid elections afterwards.